Fifty years of Yakhal’Inkomo – and still too few people are listening

percy event

“There’s more to defending democracy,” says writer, visual artist and broadcaster Percy Mabandu, “than being fishers of corrupt men.”

Mabandu is reflecting on the near media silence that has greeted the 50th anniversary this year of the release of one of South Africa’s greatest jazz standards, Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s Yakhal’Inkomo. At the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Grahamstown on 30th June, Mabandu will lead a tribute to this event, involving readings from his book Yakhal’Inkomo: portrait of a jazz classic and music from an ensemble comprising saxophonists Linda Sikhakhane and Sisonke Xonti (who’s also musical director), bassist Shane Cooper, pianist Andile Yenana and drummer Ayanda Sikade.

Mank 50 yrs agoThe anniversary, he argues, is an important political, as well as cultural moment – or, rather, there is no separation in that piece of music between the two spheres. “For me, it’s emblematic of the contribution of the arts to this country’s journey towards democracy. By that time in 1968, organised political resistance had been decimated, and Black Consciousness was formally inaugurated in December, after Yakhal’Inkomo appeared. In that space between, it was the musicians and creative workers whose voices were keeping hope alive. We saw them uplifting the country. Now we have this moment of remembering to help us recapture that spirit, outside the pontifications of politicians. And it breaks my heart that so few people get the immensity of it.”

Mankunku himself was crystal-clear about the political meaning of the tune, when I spoke to him in March 2003, six years before his death:

Mank old
Mankunku in the early 2000s

“Things were tough then – but don’t ask me about all that: I don’t want to discuss it. You had to have a pass; you got thrown out; the police would stop you, you know? I was about 22. I threw my pass away, wouldn’t carry it. We had it tough. I was always being arrested, and a lot of my friends, and I thought it was so tough for black people, and put that into the song. So it was The Bellowing Bull: for the black man’s pain. And a lot of people would come up to me and say quietly: ‘Don’t worry bra’. We understand what you are playing about…’”

A lot of people understood. The album sold at least 100 000 copies in its first five years, and may be the best selling SA jazz album of all time – but the contract included no royalty provision and a 1970s fire at the Teal label warehouse in Steeldale allegedly destroyed all sales records.

Mabandu has organised musical readings before, but none of them on this scale at a national event. He’s worked with different ensembles, and although the two reedmen are his regular collaborators, he’s also particularly excited by the addition of Yenana on piano. “First, Andile played with Mankunku. He knows this music in a different way from younger players. But also, the enigma of that 1968 ensemble is the pianist, Lionel Pillay. We know too little about him.”

(Pillay – who also worked as Lionel Martin to evade apartheid restrictions – also collaborated with Early Mabuza and Basil Manenberg Coetzee , but died in 2003, his later years saddened by psychological problems. Music historian Gerhard Kubik writes of listeners being moved to tears by his solos ). “Having a pianist in the group,” says Mabandu, “helps us to think about how best to memorialise Pillay too.”

bookWhen preparing for this performance, Mabandu talked to pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, and saxophonists Kevin Davidson – who worked with and has written about Mankunku – and Salim Washington. “Every time I talk to musicians,” Mabandu reflects, “it offers fresh ideas about that tune.

“One question that always arises is what previously unrecorded music that shares the spirit of Yakhal’Inkomo is around in the aether from that period. Neo Muyanga’s research and composition project on protest music has been a big inspiration. It’s certainly more than jazz. And an important discourse question for me is how to grow the language in which I have explored Yakhal’Inkomo into other kinds of music.”

As for what the performance will show, Mabandu is emphatic that it “can’t just be another show. It must challenge listeners and musos in breaking expectations. So the formal repertoire is going to be what I think of as one huge Yakhal’inkomo – but that doesn’t limit what else we will bring to it – something I’ve been discussing a lot with Sisonke. There will be sheets of paper on stage, and there will be drawing. That isn’t a gimmick, but a holistic art performance: one aspect of growing the language of ‘talking about’ music. And other things may happen too…”

Mabandu acknowledges gratefully how the jazz festival in Grahamstown did see the importance of the Mankunku anniversary. “But how little it’s been noticed elsewhere poses a big question. We are talking a lot now about identity:  ‘our’ culture – but how deep – or how surface – is our real relationship with that music?”

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